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Ferris Students Help Uninsured Save Their Eyesight

BpictureIG RAPIDS – Students in the Michigan College of Optometry at Ferris State University are helping those in need, while gaining valuable hands-on experience in a real-world setting.

“Many of our patients are diabetic, have glaucoma or some other eye disease which needs treatment,” said Beth Tonkery, 4th-year Optometry student from Allen Park, Mich. “Some of the patients we see have not had the care necessary to minimize complications from their disease…because they are unaware of the condition, they aren't able to find a doctor who takes their insurance, or they simply cannot afford it. We are now there to help those who need it the most – and that feels really good.”

Every Thursday, three Optometry students and a supervising faculty member travel from Big Rapids to provide optometric services to patients at Family Health Care in Baldwin, Mich., a Federally Qualified Health Center, which provides medical, dental, and now optometric services, to patients in rural Lake County, regardless of their ability to pay.

Tonkery, along with the other students, spend a lot of one-on-one time educating their patients, making sure they understand the importance of yearly eye exams as well as the importance of their attention to and care for their systemic health.

“In the patients we see at the University Eye Center at Ferris, many of them are college students who are very healthy. Volunteering our time at other clinics like Family Health Care give us, as students, a unique opportunity to diagnose and manage conditions not seen every day at MCO,” Tonkery said.

Students are able to receive this experience thanks to the efforts of MCO associate professor and Chief of Community-based Services, Dr. Renee Mika, and Assistant Dean of Clinical Affairs Dr. Bob Buckingham and their proposal to host a community-based eye clinic at Family Health Care.

While meeting with the leadership of Family Health Care, both parties were happy to discover they seemed to be a good match in terms of their shared missions and overall health care philosophy. After three years of careful planning and analysis, the eye clinic became a reality in January 2008 and has been a success from everyone’s viewpoint.

Linda Shively, CEO of Baldwin Family Health Care, couldn’t agree more.

“Early on in our discussions, MCO recommended they perform a needs analysis with our Baldwin patients. It was in fact determined there was an overwhelming need for eye care in our community, particularly among those who are diabetic and need vision care, and for those who are uninsured and need eye care,” Shively noted. She has been working together with MCO since the beginning of this collaborative venture and says their partnership demonstrates the true value of integrated care.

“We have had a number of patients who have given us feedback on working with MCO students, and it’s all been very positive. The patients really appreciate working with the students, because they spend a lot of time with them,” Shively added.

Her viewpoint is, the more services you can put into one building, the better.

“It just makes sense…it improves access and efficiency. Working with the students and faculty of the Michigan College of Optometry has just been wonderful, since day one.”

Mika, who teaches public health, clinical procedures and environmental vision courses, is thrilled that students are getting such a rich experience through volunteering at the clinics. She is hopeful that the benefits to MCO’s students will last far beyond their rotation through the FHC clinic.

“We have had an overwhelmingly positive response from students as well. Aside from the obvious benefits of caring for diverse populations within this inter-professional setting, students quickly develop a keen awareness of the numerous barriers to healthcare that vulnerable populations face regularly, and they begin to develop a shared sense of responsibility in providing care for those who need it the most.

“We are very thankful that Family Health Care has opened their doors to us and enabled our students to provide a needed service within our local rural community,” said Mika.